Guillermo Vilas made his mark on tennis both with his style of play and a personality as colourful as some of his kit. Classified at the start of his career as the "[Raymond] Poulidor" of the court, the Argentine finally secured his place at the top table in 1977. Forty years on, let's take a backwards glance at a season that made history.
Guillermo Vilas made his mark on tennis both with his style of play and a personality as colourful as some of his kit. Classified at the start of his career as the "Poulidor" of the court, the Argentine finally secured his place at the top table in 1977. Forty years on, let's take a backwards glance at a season that made history.
It's the 1970s, long hair held in place by a sweatband, figure-hugging kit and topspin shots. Bjorn Borg, would you say? True. But not just him. Add some sunshine, a mane of brown hair to seduce the ladies and you are describing one of the best tennis players of his generation. That's Guillermo Vilas down to a tee. A real character, the author of a collection of poems that caused a sensation in Argentina, and a special kind of player, a pioneer of topspin, with winning ways, whom only Borg could hope to match at that time.
Following the iciness of the Swede, the romantic from Latin America is one of those who won sports afficionados over to the game of tennis. In Argentina, he goes well beyond the bounds of the game in his red-hot 1977 season to become a true idol.
The pioneer of topspin
The date is January 9 and Vilas, the top seed, loses the final of the Australian Open – at that time played on grass – to American Roscoe Tanner. The old refrain is heard again – he is the ever-present contender, bound to never win. The Argentine has had enough and changes everything: his trainer, the way he serves and his game strategy. With Romanian Ion Tiriac, the pillar of his career, Vilas becomes a champion. He then launches the sort of year of which few sportspeople can boast.
At Roland-Garros, Jimmy Connors and Borg are missing. Some call it a fire-sale competition. The left-hander ignores all that. His singlehanded topspin backhand, which he learns by imitating Rod Laver and by endlessly analysing photos – there were no images of this almost unknown stroke – works miracles. He crushes the competition, losing just one set in the entire fortnight before defeating the American Brian Gottfried (6-0, 6-3, 6-0) in the biggest rout in the final in the tournament's history. He becomes the first South American man to win a Grand Slam and soon becomes an icon throughout Latin America. His compatriots, and future champions, Canas and Coria are named Guillermo, to honour Vilas.
For a player then aged 25, his appetite for titles is insatiable. "Once you win a big title, you want to win another one, he told tennis.com in September. "If you win two, you want a third, and then you want them to build a statue of you in the middle of Buenos Aires". On clay, he is a real steamroller, recording 53 consecutive victories. A record that only Rafael Nadal, his natural successor, has topped since.
A record-breaking year
He demonstrates his mastery by winning the US Open, at that time played on clay. This time, the favourites are there, including the world's number one, Jimmy Connors. The two men meet in the final. The public had taken up Vilas' cause, even against the best US player of that time. Hammered in the first set, he recovers by going on the offensive using his famous backhand. The result is an exhibition match and, winning 6-0 in the fourth and final set, he emerges as the uncontested victor.
In just a few months, the young Argentine has become the best player on the circuit, maintaining his dominance throughout the season. He wins 16 ATP titles in 1977, of which 14 are on clay, and 145 victories over the whole season, a record yet to be beaten in the Open era. With exceptional endurance due to his marathon training sessions, he wins 72 of his 73 matches before attacking the Masters, held, unusually, at the start of 1978.
A single setback against Ilie Năstase at Aix-en-Provence on September 30 interrupts this run, in a questionable final where he retires when confronted by the Romanian and his double stringing with its unpredictable spin. "I didn’t lose against a player, I lost against a racket," he said, just one month before this "spaghetti string" was banned. His non-stop exploits though never allowed him to become the world's number one, due to the way points were awarded, a situation the ATP has always refused to review.
No matter. Guillermo Vilas' dream season leaves an indelible mark on the tennis world, becoming a major part of the sport's story and a stand-out in the record books. A year that made him a hero throughout a country and even a continent, where he wrote the first chapter of what has since become a passionate love affair with tennis.